Superpowers of Ceiling Smashers

The Secret Skills of the Most Powerful Women in Business

Shaz Kahng

In a private dining room at a swanky restaurant in downtown San Francisco, I was struck by what I was hearing from the women surrounding me…women just like you. I was the featured speaker in back to back coaching luncheons for women in business: the first lunch was for C-level female executives and the second was for talented women in middle management aspiring to move up the corporate ladder. At each lunch I shared some of my observations of the challenges that women in business face and what women could do to better navigate their way to the top. There was plenty of engaging discussion and the women asked insightful questions of me and of each other.

Much to my surprise what I heard from all these talented women, regardless of their level or accomplishments, was that they faced exactly the same professional obstacles. Even worse, many were at a loss as to how to deal with these issues. I realized what these women needed- what every professional woman really needs- is practical tips on how to deal with common work issues. What follows is just a few of the Superpowers of Ceiling Smashers.

Superpower #1: Resilience

Resilience is defined the ability to recover your spirits, strength, or good humor quickly and it is a critical characteristic of successful people. How can resilience help you turnaround a near disaster? Let me share one of my more memorable experiences.

Early in my consulting career I was the sole consultant working on a project with a senior partner. We were to present our strategic recommendations to the client at a two-day offsite held at a private country club in rural Pennsylvania, which included the board members and senior executives.

The first day of meetings went well and was followed by a cocktail hour. While everyone went upstairs I stayed in the conference room to prepare for the next day. After a while I went upstairs and sauntered into the bar where everyone was chatting, drinks in hand.

I stepped up to the bar and ordered a drink. The bartender looked startled and said, “Sorry, miss, you’re not allowed in here.” I laughed and assured him I was of legal drinking age and repeated my drink order. Again, he said, “Sorry, you can’t be in here.” He pointed to a sign above the door that read, “Gentleman Only.” I said, “Are you kidding? That sign’s not an antique?” The bartender shook his head. I was shocked. Of the nineteen people at the offsite, I was the only female, the only minority, and evidently the only one not allowed in the bar. By then all conversation in the room had ceased and everyone was watching me.

Turning back to the bartender I said, “Okay, here’s what we’ll do. I’d like for you to make my drink please, which I’ll take outside.” Turning to the roomful of men I said, “We’ve been cooped up inside all day, so I’m going out on the terrace to enjoy the sunset. If anyone wants to join me, you are welcome.” I forced a smile as I waited for a response. Crickets. I grabbed my drink and left the bar.

As I walked out of the country club I was filled with indignation. Out on the sprawling terrace I reflected, this is the nineties, how could this kind of treatment be possible? I plopped down on a chaise lounge and in the absolute stillness I never felt more alone. I looked around at the gorgeous scenery with verdant trees, rolling hills, and a magenta sunset and I took a deep breath and just tried to recover and enjoy a moment of peace.

After a while a deep voice behind me said, “Is this a private sunset or may I share it with you?” The voice belonged to Dave, the client CEO. I replied, “This is an equal-opportunity sunset. Pull up a chair.” I felt so grateful to him for coming outside to keep me company. We started talking and I suddenly realized I had a golden opportunity- I had a private audience with the CEO. I could ask him questions that I had not been able to during the whole project.

The next day the entire group was discussing the new business strategy when Dave asked to take a break to confer with “my consultant.” At that point the partner eagerly ran over to the CEO. Dave waved him off, saying, “Actually, I wanted to consult with Shaz. Alone.” Dave said to me, “Based on our discussion about my leadership philosophy, do you still think these recommendations will work for us and, if not, what do we need to modify?”

I couldn’t believe that this venerable CEO was asking the opinion of a twenty-something consultant. I answered honestly telling him we needed to rework some our recommendations so they made sense for the culture he wanted to foster in his company, and then I explained how.

This lesson taught me the necessity of being resilient and taking a bad situation and turning it to your advantage. If I hadn’t snapped out of my grumpy state and had an engrossing conversation with the CEO, I would never have been given the chance to share my ideas and actually add value.

Superpower #2: Be Deft at MANagement

No, that’s not a misspelling the emphasis is indeed on “man.” The reality is that we all have to work with men and I’ve worked with plenty of male colleagues who are smart, talented, funny, and also good people. However, you’re bound to come across some bad apples- men with no honor or more often men who are behaving badly and just need a nudge in the right direction. Since you’re inevitably going to work with men there are a number of aspects of being good at MANagement, two specific aspects which I’ll mention here.

The first aspect of is the practice of quid pro quo, a Latin term for “a favor for a favor.” This is a basic tenet of how guys operate and is completely different from how women tend to behave. When a guy does a favor for another man, the guy on the receiving end will say, “Hey, thanks, man. I owe you one.” And you can bet that the guy who helped him will actually cash in on that promise at some point in the future. However, if it’s a woman doing the favor when the guy says, “I owe you one,” she’ll inevitably say, “Oh no, don’t be silly,” or “Don’t worry about it, I’m happy to help.” That woman is totally missing out and is also foregoing an opportunity that she deserves.

This happened to me. When I was a senior executive at Nike I saw someone composing an email conspiring to get someone else- we’ll call him Frank- fired unfairly. I called Frank that evening and warned him about the situation. He was panicked and asked me to help him save his job. I strategized with Frank on what to do and gave him detailed advice. The outcome? Frank was able to get ahead of the situation and he kept his job. He was effusive in expressing his gratitude and promised that he’d do anything to help me out in the future.

Years later Frank and I had both moved on to other companies. At Frank’s company there was a struggling business unit that I was interested in running, so I asked him for an introduction to the CEO. To my surprise Frank declined, saying that the guy who was currently running the business unit was a friend of his and he felt uncomfortable introducing me to the CEO. Frank told me that the CEO might think my skillset was stronger and then his friend would be out of a job. I didn’t like his response, but I accepted it. What a blockhead I was! I should have said, “Hey buddy, remember the time I helped save your job at Nike? You owe me one. Please make the introduction.” And you know what? Frank probably would have done so. That was my mistake- poor MANagement. As it turned out a few months later the guy running the struggling business unit was replaced anyway and- get this- by a more qualified woman who is doing a great job.

Another aspect of MANagement is getting guys to be good teammates and recruiting them to help you when you need it. Early in my career I was at our company Christmas party and having a pleasant time when one of the company’s leaders came over to talk to me. We were chatting about an interesting business topic although it quickly became evident that the guy was drunk. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed him swing his arm around and place it somewhere. Then I felt something that completely startled me…it was his hand, which was now resting on my rear end and grabbing it. I couldn’t believe it. This was in the middle of the company Christmas party and this was the second most powerful man in the company! What the heck? I froze up not knowing what to do. I stopped talking and looked down just staring incredulously at the guy’s hand on my butt. When I glanced up I saw a group of my guy friends standing across the room also staring at the hand on my bottom in disbelief. I gave one guy a head gesture to get him to come over. He hustled right over and said, “Sorry, Frederick, I need to steal Shaz away from you. Hope you don’t mind.” My friend hooked my arm in his and extricated me from the awkward situation. I was able to roll away from Frederick’s tight grip on my backside and scram. Then I made darn sure to warn the other women at the party to stay away from the creep.

Superpower #3: Build Your Own Ceiling Smashers Network

In my novel, The Closer, the story about the first female CEO of a sports company a key element to helping the main character succeed is her network. The protagonist relies upon what I dubbed the Ceiling Smasher society, a secret network of professional women who help each other navigate the challenges, politics, and setbacks in their careers. In fiction and in real life, it’s critical to have a network of smart, talented, ethical women (and men) of whom you can ask questions, get support, use as a sounding board, or simply seek empathy. These relationships will become strategic assets as you continue in your career.

Let’s face it being a female chief executive has its many moments of feeling isolated. The best way to combat this is to collect Ceiling Smashers along the way as you go through your career. Your Ceiling Smashers network should consist of positive role models: people who are smart, talented, and great at what they do. People who you think are amazing. People whom you admire. People with great ideas and open minds. People who demonstrate the same values. People from whom you can learn a lot. People who are willing to make time for you and help you. But remember, when these members of your network ask you for help you have to come through for them. A great benefit of a Ceiling Smashers network is that as you help each other you all rise together.

A great example of the power of a women’s network is the whole #MeToo movement- a few brave women started the ball rolling and this viral campaign has had the effect of bringing down sexual predators who have caused harm and ruined many people’s lives. Women can unite to bring focus to and solution for a cause.

So the next time you find yourself in a sticky business situation keep in mind these success secrets: Be resilient, be deft at MANagement, and build your own Ceiling Smashers society. Whether you’re already a CEO, an aspiring C-level executive, or you just want to get more out of the sweat equity you’re investing in your career deploying these tips will help you succeed with smarts, scruples, and style.

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